Embrace the shake - why limitation can drive your innovation

From Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s kitchen concerts to domestic scenes recreating famous works of art, people have been demonstrating their ingenuity under lockdown on a scale rarely seen before, thanks to this era of social media.  

Neil Spa: My recreation of „Icarus“ by Henri Matisse - with a plum, bananas and lemons. #gettymuseumchallengeNeil Spa on Twitter

All this is nice and helps connect us, but what does creativity under lockdown have to do with the real world? Why, particularly, if you’re worried about translating business to the online world, would you think it was useful?

Choice paralysis

We could start by looking at WHY people have been less creatively inhibited than usual. One reason could be that when everyone else is doing it, the fear of being judged lessens; the fear of getting it wrong becomes irrelevant.

Another reason is simple: the achilles heel of so many creatives, that thing called choice paralysis, is taken away when you simply have to work with what you have in front of you. Far from being restrictive, constraints can be utterly liberating, and that’s a good takeaway for any entrepreneur, activist or even large organisation.

Tattooed Banana saying 'wow'

Just ask artist Phil Hansen, whose TED talk ‘embrace the shake’ is an inspiring tale of how he took a nervous disorder which threatened to end his art career and embraced it to create a new style of working, shakes and all. He championed working with what you have in front of you. He couldn’t use his signature pointillistic style any more, but instead used lateral thinking to create much larger scale and more collaborative works, and a huge audience. From tattooing bananas to crowdsourcing text for images, Phil says his injury helped him get out of a creative cul-de-sac. 

That’s great, you’re saying, but I’m not an artist. So how can I use the power of constraints to focus a big project like building an app or digital transformation? Read on.

The paralysis of the status quo

In a 2019 Wipro survey of over 1400 C-Suite executives, over half said that barriers to a digital transformation’s success were factors like not being able to train existing teams to use new technology, methods or processes, as well as lack of buy-in from senior leadership.

It’s not as if digital transformation is new on the agenda for most existing businesses, but for many established corporates comes the baggage of inertia, stakeholders, training and logistics, together with a hefty dose of ‘that’s how it’s always been done.’

So what happens when teams are suddenly forced to pivot to remote and online? What happens when it becomes a matter of urgency to rethink income streams, distribution and delivery channels and, well, the very future of your business?

For many workforces, the forced transition to online has broken down outdated barriers and given employees a new perspective on what can and can’t be done remotely. It’s the permission slip many have been waiting for, and it’s hard to see a way back to business as usual.

While there are the ever-present undercurrents of inequality, privilege and favouritism, with BAME-owned small businesses particularly hard hit by the Coronavirus, success is not all due to luck and bank balance: there’s a lot to be said for the unglamorous tasks of policy setting and planning; it can mitigate the disadvantages some sectors, small businesses and nonprofits find themselves in, and may prove the difference between whether you sink or swim.

Set limits to your reflection, then act

Whether you’re going through a planned digital transformation or a forced one, an imposed period of focus and reflection can be golden as it helps you identify your core business and how you’d find a way to carry it on if the world shifted overnight (if it hasn’t already).

Don’t spend too long on reflection before acting, though, and don’t make assumptions without testing them: what you assume to be your non-negotiable selling point might not be where the value lies in your offering to your users.

How do you find out? Ask them. You can set up a mini Discovery stage to gather insights, involve stakeholders and interview users. Those stakeholders who have traditionally shown resistance are more likely to engage now, so press on while you have momentum. With all this creativity around, they might be more open to changing their perspective, too, and even engaging in role play or user journey games. The point of all this is to flip your thinking from the way YOU’ve always done things, to the way your users experience your product, and you might be surprised that what’s important to your audience is very far from what you thought. 

For instance, a high street bank might embark on an expensive project to develop a loyalty programme for their users, thinking that this will enhance retention. If they put in place a structured Discovery stage to research what the real barriers to their users were, they would discover that making their online banking experience more intuitive, faster and less confusing would be a far better use of their time and money, producing superior results and enabling users to navigate to and apply for high-value products more easily.

Don’t just act, iterate

If your plans are inflexible and don’t allow you to pivot and learn, you’re taking a risk. There’s a reason why we favour Agile methodology for our projects, working to deliver early, then often. If you prioritise key features early on, then launch with a minimum viable product, you’re able to get user and market feedback quickly. 

This feedback then allows you to iterate, adjust variables and carry on, armed with real insight.

Here’s where the constraints come in

Imposing limitations—budget, time, scope, or a combination of these—early on in the project gives you the boundaries to work within. 

Usually, we’ll come out of a Discovery phase with a client with a very good understanding of the business needs, functional and technical requirements. That lets us set clear priorities and defined features.

Moving on to the next phase, an initial development phase, we’d set constraints with the client. An example is fixed budget, fixed timeline, fixed minimum scope and variable extended scope. All this allows us to stay in control, keep the project on track but also remain flexible when small changes arise without major trade-offs.

Information is gold

Phil Hansen could have taken a sabbatical and hoped his nerves healed enough to continue work as before. But he didn’t, he engaged, and pivoted, with new limitations he had to adjust to. 

Setting well-thought-out constraints gives your project focus and impact. You may have to adjust to new market conditions, so by seizing the opportunity to reflect, research, act and deliver within those constraints, you’re far more likely to deliver value to your users and gain vital feedback early on.


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